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Djibouti Dispatch: An Airman's encounter with a cheetah

Senior Airman Krystal Rannals, 129th Maintenance Group, poses with actor Christian Slater and a cheetah during a USO trip to a Cheetah Refuge in Djibouti.(Photo courtesy of Senior Airman Krystal Rannals)

Senior Airman Krystal Rannals, 129th Maintenance Group, poses with actor Christian Slater and a cheetah during a USO trip to a Cheetah Refuge in Djibouti.(Photo courtesy of Senior Airman Krystal Rannals)

Senior Airman Krystal Rannals, 129th Maintenance Group, poses with a cheetah during a USO trip to a Cheetah Refuge in Djibouti.(Photo courtesy of Senior Airman Krystal Rannals)

Senior Airman Krystal Rannals, 129th Maintenance Group, poses with a cheetah during a USO trip to a Cheetah Refuge in Djibouti.(Photo courtesy of Senior Airman Krystal Rannals)

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti -- Senior Airman Krystal Rannals from the 129th Maintenance Group had the opportunity to visit a cheetah refuge May 16 with a USO-sponsored group of celebrities during her deployment to Djibouti. Below is her story about the visit. 

As soon as we arrived at the Cheetah Refuge we were greeted by our French tour guides and the animal caretakers. The caretakers consisted of five women, one veterinarian, and the one animal advocate who started it all. The animal advocate was traveling through Djibouti and saw that cheetah skin was being sold in the downtown area. He wasn't even aware that cheetah's were indigenous to this particular part of Africa, but then to find that they were being hunted and killed for their skin lit a fire underneath him, hence creating this refuge for the cheetah's. 

He made it very clear that it was not a zoo, but a refuge. Therefore the animals are the priority. So if our mere presence bothered them, we would be removed from the area. Lucky for us the animals actually enjoyed having us there...some a little more than others as you'll find later. 

We split into two groups in order to enter each area in a non-threatening capacity. I just so happened to have Joel Moore, Zach Levi, and Christian Slater in my group. At first my thought was, "How am I suppose to fully enjoy myself without having the pressure of saying or doing something humiliating around these people?" But within a matter of minutes all the servicemembers found that they're normal like us. 

The caretakers set up the camp to where we were enclosed in a tiny space for viewing - not the other way around. The cheetah's have all the room in the world to roam and run around. Now when I said we're enclosed, I mean that the gate width was from one shoulder to the other, and there was no true barrier between us and the wild animals. (It's the same type of fence you would put in a front yard to keep the dog from running away.) The cheetahs could easily stick their claws through the gate and there would be no ability to run in any direction. 

As soon as we were given the ok to touch the cheetah, the celebs and servicemembers were sticking their hands and arms right through the fence to pet it. This cheetah was so friendly! It would purr, (about the sound you would hear if 10 cats purred at the same time). I on the other hand observed and wondered how I'm going to work myself up to do the next thing we were about to do. 

The corridor we were walking down lead to a gated circle that housed what they considered to be their friendliest cheetah. She was sitting out in the open and people were really excited...to the point where they are hugging her and putting their face right up to her. So I think, "I can do this, I can do this." 

You may say to yourself, "If I ever got a chance to pet a cheetah, I wouldn't hold back." You never really know what you would do until that wild animal is laying inches away from you. I was able to gather the courage and approach her. 

I could feel that feeling in the pit of my stomach that says, "Something's wrong," but I ignored it and put my wrist right in front of her mouth, which she gently licked. Other people in the group said, "Get closer, pet her, rub her head." So I took a breath, placed my face closer to hers, and reached out to pet her head. OK, mission accomplished. Just as I turned away and started walking out of the brush, I smiled at my group with a sense of pride, but all I saw were big eyes and dropped jaws. Before I knew it, there was a heavy paw on my thigh and jaws on my calve. 

Apparently, as I turned away, the cheetah's eyes grew, she lifted herself off the floor, reached for my left leg first but missed, then got my right thigh and went in for my calf. Right when I realized what was happening I grabbed the first person in front of me, which just happened to be Christian Slater, and hid behind him. The tour guide reached out for the cheetah to pull her back and it became completely silent from everyone holding their breath. 

Then the tour guide says, "She likes to play with legs." LIKES TO PLAY WITH LEGS? This would have been helpful information to know prior to entering the area and having a mini heart attack! After gathering myself I gained some perspective. In all fairness, I could see that she was just playing with me. She could have easily clawed me but her paw was just wrapped around my thigh to pull me closer just like a domestic cat, and she could have easily sunk her teeth into my calf, but she just lightly touched her teeth to it. 

After the cheetah's we were lucky enough to see ostriches, zebras, gazelles, lynxes, and White donkeys (these animals fall under the donkey family but are the size of a horse and have stripes on their legs like a zebra. There are only 600 left in the world). All these animals were beautiful. 

The trip was more than I could have asked for. Don't get me wrong, the celebrities were cool too. Christian Slater was praised for being a true action hero because he guarded me from the cheetah. He got a real kick out of that, but otherwise he was very down to earth. The other guys were great too. They even hung out with all the servicemembers after the meet and greet later that night. But with or without the celebrities, the Cheetah Refuge was unbelievable.